by Lisa Ritter Starr
Besides knowing someone in the adoption triad, popular stories are the main way we get information about adoption. The overwhelming majority of these stories is positive, yet the ones getting the most news coverage these days are the unusual and unfortunate cases. One popular type that pops up whenever possible is the custody battle between adoptive and birth parents.
A recent article in an Amarillo, Texas newspaper tells yet another of these "horror" stories in which a set of birth parents is pitted against adoptive parents. In this case, Ashley Gutierrez and Joseph Alarcon Gonzalez were recently awarded legal custody of their two-year-old daughter, adopted at birth by Jeff and Alicia Gurney. Why is this so interesting? What can we learn from stories like this? Should something be done to stop such occurrences in the future?
Why are we interested?
What is best for the children? This is a timeless question that we, as humans, have always asked ourselves. Even animals, in their own way, spend much of their time doing what they know to be in their offspring's best interest. At the most basic level, it is about survival. You don't leave babies alone, unprotected, starving, thirsty, or otherwise uncared for.
We are also interested in stories that involve child welfare because, even if they are not our children, we can still empathize with their plight. If we cannot, then at least we know that what affects them as children will someday affect them as adults. Consequently, what they do as adults affects us, when we are part of their society. Therefore, not only do we worry about the welfare of the children, but it is in the best interest of us individually and as a society to care because it affects us, too.
We also care because we like conflict, the unusual, or anything else that shakes us out of our daily rut. Which of us hasn't at some point com
e home from the same-ol' same-ol' kind of day and lost himself in the daily news of hurricanes, volcano eruptions, prison riots, and kidnappings? How many of us would continue a crossword puzzle when two cars crash right outside the window? In short, who doesn't look for the extraordinary in order to escape, at least for a little while, from the ordinary?
Most of us do, and this is okay. What we can't forget is that the extraordinary is an exception to the rule. Whether positive or negative, we don't count on it ever happening again. When a child, like two-year-old Savannah Sierra in Texas, is caught in a custody battle between adoptive and birth parents, it is highly unusual and unfortunate. But rather than keeping this in mind as an example of adoption, we can choose to learn from its example in other ways.
What can we learn?
According to the Amarillo Globe News, seventeen-year-old Ashley Gutierrez now has legal custody of Savannah Gutierrez, who was called Sierra by her adoptive parents. Custody was returned when, over two years later, the court finally ruled the adoption to be unintentional and therefore illegal, based on evidence that neither birth parent signed relinquishment papers nor stated "an intent not to return."
The article touches briefly on the dilemma of each set of parents who believe the toddler to be "theirs." Gutierrez claims that she never intended to allow her daughter to be adopted. Whether or not this is true, Alicia Gurney insisted that her daughter said she is "not 'vannah'" and did not want to go with her birth mother. Jeff Gurney, the child's prospective adoptive father, wants their story to be used as an example to warn against "these birthmothers who change their minds and come back and make your life a living hell."
If you pay attention to the media, you might come away from such stories thinking that adoptions often turn out this way. This is simply not the case. It is only in rare instances that a court will find the best interest of the child to be to return to the birth parent or parents. We should keep in mind that most of these rare and fascinating stories do make it into national headlines, whereas successful (read: not newsworthy) adoptions do not.
Occasionally a new adoption will fail when a birth parent, usually the mother, changes her mind about the adoption. This may happen in only a handful of states, such as California, which allows a three-month period after placement for a birth parent to reconsider. According to Christine Adamec's The Adoption Option Complete Handbook, 2000-2001, most birth parents do not change their minds. All adoption agencies listed in the book reported the number of failed adoptions per year to be either zero or, at most, in the single digits, and these are adoptions
that were never legally completed in the first place and failed at or around the child's birth.
Should something be done?
In failed adoptions, it is genuinely and deeply sad that prospective adoptive parents would have to give up a child they have taken into their hearts or homes as their own. From a developmental point of view, it is even worse that this could still happen after as long as two years, if any other alternative existed - in this case, leaving Savanna at home with the Gurneys. But can anything be done?
Perhaps there is no easy solution. Maybe all that can be done is to use such an exceptional story in order to improve existing adoption laws. Not only that, but situations still in the pre-adoption phase can still be positively affected. According to Nancy Verrier, M.A., psychotherapist, adoptive parents, and author of The Primal Wound: Understanding the Adopted Child," a lot should be taken into consideration before an adoption takes place.
In her article, "The Bias Ag
ainst Birth Mothers," Verrier asserts that all separations between mothers and children are unnatural and should be avoided whenever possible. She states that the adoptee is wounded biologically and emotionally by the process of the adoption and, while it may be a loving way to create a family, Verrier agrees with the Hague Convention resolution on adoption that "A child should not be considered for adoption unless it needs parents." Following that, a birth mother does not "need" to relinquish her child if thinks that she should, perhaps having been told that it is in the child's best interest to be relinquished • as so many young, single, unwed pregnant women are often told.
Savannah Gutierrez is now at home with her birth mother and, in all likelihood, will not be moved from her home by any court ever again. She will live her life as Savannah, knowing that, once upon a time, she had a different name, different parents, and a different life set out before her. Will she be okay? Is this in Savannah's best interest? According to the Texas Supreme Court, at least, it is.
For more suggestions from Nancy Verrier on what can be done in a child's best interest regarding adoption, visit www.nancyverrier.com.
Adamec, Christine. The Adoption Option Handbook, 2000-2001, Prima Publishers, Rockland, CA: 1999.
Verrier, Nancy. "The Bias Against Birth Mothers." http://e-magazine.adoption.com/articles/394/the-bias-against-birth-mothers.php.
Wilson, Beth. "Girl to Return to Birthmom Immediately." www.amarillonet.com/news: Local news for September 21, 2004.
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